more stars than in the heavens

not in our stars, but in ourselves

Hitchcock and Aesthetics

NOTE: Every now and then, I’ll test out some of the more academic things I’ve written in my time on all y’all.  The following is an essay I wrote for a class I took last semester.  There will be no pictures.  I’m sorry.  If you read it, let me know whether it’s any good.  If I should stick to pithy 1000-word reviews of pre-Code frolics, let me know that too.

In the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the only meaning generated is generated by aesthetics.  His control of every detail of his films, from art direction to camera angles, has been well documented; he was, at the very least, a filmmaker with an artist’s mind.  The result of that mind – essentially uninterested in dialogue or even plot – is dozens of films in which the only true meaning, the only truly memorable and notable qualities, are aesthetics.  Indeed, many of his films involve the question of appearances and beauty as plot points, as catalysts to the action that takes place within the films.  For our purposes, I will focus on Rebecca (1940) and Vertigo (1958), because these two films include as key plot structures issues of aesthetics: Manderley, the very setting of Rebecca, a house haunted by the memory of the title character, and Hitchcock employs every weapon in his filmmaking arsenal to bring the setting beyond creepy to uncanny; while the necrophiliac transformation of Judy into Madeleine in Vertigo, is in itself a question of aesthetics, and is further augmented by a lushly romantic (or Romantic) score that transforms an ordinary horror-romance into a masterpiece of love and despair.

Before delving too deeply into the films, it is important to fix upon a definition of what aesthetics actually is.  As a Western philosophical concept, it has existed since the eighteenth century: Alexander Baumgarten took the word aesthetic from the Greek αἰσθητικός (aisthetikos), which means “sensitive, sentient”; and which in turn comes from the Greek verb αἰσθάνομαι (aisthanomai), which means “I perceive, feel, sense” (Harper 2012).  It is, in Malcolm Budd’s words, “the philosophy of art, and the philosophy of the aesthetic experience and character of objects or phenomena that are not art” (1998).  It contains within its purview beauty and taste.  Denis Dutton summarised seven aesthetic universals, which, while not accepted without argument by the philosophical community – indeed, what is? – are useful for our purposes: expertise or virtuosity, non-utilitarian pleasure, style, criticism, imitation, special focus, and imagination (Pinker 2002, 404).  In other words, these seven aspects of aesthetics are, respectively: the cultivation of artistic skill, enjoying a work of art without expecting it to provide food or shelter, adhering to accepted rules of composition, judgment and appreciating artworks, the simulation of the world in art, privileging art as a unique experience in life, and creating new worlds (ibid., 404).  Nick Zangwill, drawing on Immanuel Kant’s discussions of aesthetics, argues that

pleasure in the beautiful … is not mere sensuous gratification, as in the pleasure of sensation, or of eating and drinking.  Unlike such pleasures, pleasure in beauty is occasioned by the perceptual representation of a thing. … Moreover, unlike other sorts of intentional pleasures, pleasure in beauty is “disinterested”.  This means, very roughly, that it is a pleasure that does not involve desire – pleasure in beauty is desire-free.  That is, the pleasure is neither based on desire nor does it produce one by itself.  In this respect, pleasure in beauty is unlike pleasure in the agreeable, unlike pleasure in what is good for me, and unlike pleasure in what is morally good.  According to Kant, all such pleasures are “interested” – they are bound up with desire.  It may be that we have desires concerning beautiful things … but so long as those desires are not intrinsic to the pleasure in beauty, the doctrine that all pleasure is disinterested is undisturbed (2010).

The question of whether or not pleasure in beauty – one of the key “universals” in aesthetics – produces or originates in desire is interesting to consider, particularly for the purposes of this paper; in a broad and entirely abstract sense, it is perhaps true that pleasure in beauty need not involve desire.  In more specific and concrete senses, however, it often does – but we can return to that caveat presently.

For now, let us turn to aesthetics and affect.  Janet Harbord refers to “[a]esthetic affect, or the puncturing of the real” (2002, 132): in her example, the union of film image and sound to produce an effect/affect in the spectator, one that ensures he or she is absorbed in the work of art being witnessed – experiencing the visions, sounds, music as his/her own perception.  She gives a seemingly lowbrow example of the unified effect/affect of sound and vision together – Danny Elfman’s score for the Tim Burton Batman films – one that will make sense applied to Hitchcock as well:

the film scores of these films utilize various scores connected to different temporalities.  An orchestrated soundtrack by Danny Elfman provides … the conservative element of the musical weave, music characterized by a combination of brass instruments and an emphatic beat, which both compensates for dialogue and emphasizes the tension in key moments.  This score plays on the slippage between Gotham and gothic; it renders a menacing yet sublime undercurrent, referencing earlier scores from horror films.  It might also be argued that Elfman’s score, in underlining this gothic dimension to the Batman films, fleshes out the adult dimension to the film; the reverse side to the laughing malevolent Joker is hysteria, and to the all-purposeful Batman, despair and loss (2002, 133).

In short, the Batman films do not remain mere live-action versions of the comic books.  Nor do most films fail to penetrate the spectator’s reality, drawing the spectator into the film with music and images.  Gilles Deleuze writes of an aesthetics of sensation, citing a particular example by Francis Bacon of a painting of a screaming pope: “there is nothing [in the painting] that might cause horror, and the curtain in front of the Pope is not only a way of isolating him, of shielding him from view; it is rather the way in which the Pope himself sees nothing, and screams before the invisible.  Thus neutralized, the horror is multiplied because it is inferred from the scream, and not the reverse” (2003, 27-28).  In a more cinematic vein, Deleuze also devises the “impulse-image,” which is based largely on naturalism.  Impulse-images feature “human animals.  And this indeed is the impulse: the energy which seizes fragments in the originary world. … Of course, impulses are not lacking in intelligence: they even have a diabolical intelligence which leads each to choose its part, await its moment, defer its gesture, and borrow the outlines of form which will best enable it to perform its act” (1991, 124).  To draw these two Deleuzean concepts together, tie them to Harbord and then to aesthetics more broadly: if we could apply his specifically cinematic terminology to Bacon, we could perhaps see the screaming pope as an impulse-image.  It is an image of a human animal acting, not rationally, but impulsively.  It is, furthermore, highly affective: the anguished scream at something unseen and unknown draws the viewer into the painting, experiencing the panic and powerlessness depicted.  Similarly, the use of music in films – Elfman’s score of the Batman films, or indeed Hitchcock’s musical collaborators on his own films – draws spectators into the film in ways that the image alone would not: with a pulsating beat, or a shimmering harp, the film ensures that its audience feels what it is meant to feel, whether excitement or longing or fear.  All of these aesthetic effects, producing affects, are in short generating meanings beyond the barebones of the plot.

Called “the Master” with very good reason, Hitchcock proved again and again his understanding of these concepts in aesthetics.  His is a cinema of impulses, fear, desire, beauty, music, and art.  He openly called on other artistic and literary figures to bring additional layers of meaning to his films, among them Cocteau, Dalí, the Surrealists, Wagner, the Late Romantics, the Pre-Raphaelites, Debussy, the ancient Greeks, Poe (Cogeval 2001, 21-36), Murnau and German Expressionism in Weimar cinema more generally (Jacobs 2007, 16).  Guy Cogeval summarises the many and varied influences on Hitchcock: “It would be more accurate to say that Hitchcock … engages in a subtle, sometimes clandestine reactivation of Victorian, Decadent and Symbolist culture of the late 19th century, via a sort of ultimate, nostalgic, Salvationist reflex, which is understandable for an auteur who was British and Catholic at the same time” (2001, 23).  Other authors have noted that Hitchcock’s Catholic upbringing likely instilled in him a heightened appreciation for strong imagery.  Donald Spoto posits that “already as a child the filmmaker had a distinct visual orientation, at a time when English education was predominantly literary. … [His] Catholicism encouraged his preoccupation with images.  The Catholic faith is, after all (and in contrast to the variant of Protestantism, the dominant religion of England), fundamentally visually demonstrative.  In Catholic doctrine, persuasion is frequently achieved by demonstration” (Shafto 2001, 143).  In his films as well, Hitchcock “persuades” – or directs, as he told Peter Bogdonavich – the audience through his masterful command of all facets of the film: art direction, set design, costumes, soundtrack and score, even title sequences.  Nathalie Bondil-Poupard asserts that “Hitchcock was everywhere, but was above all himself.  In alluding – whether consciously or not – to his many and varied aesthetic influences, from Romanticism to Expressionism, from Symbolism to Surrealism, he appropriated, assimilated and transcended them.  Such is the hallmark of any great artist” (2001, 155).  He did more than appropriate, assimilate and transcend artistic movements: he did the same with other, non-cinematic arts as well.  Cogeval notes Hitchcock’s commitment to the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art (2001, 24), a concept originating in nineteenth and early twentieth century opera.  The director was speaking specifically of his apparently one-take film, Rope (1948), when he spoke of his desire to make a film without “gaps or flaws” (Cogeval 2001, 24) – but he often succeeded in making “gapless,” flawless films that were indeed total works of art.

His first American film, Rebecca, is one such example.  Based on the Daphne Du Maurier novel, it is a Gothic tale of secrets, lies, and the dead haunting the living.  A young woman (Joan Fontaine) marries the tortured British aristocrat, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), who brings her back to his ancestral home.  The home is still steeped in the memory of the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca – a memory kept alive by her ardently loyal housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson).  The second Mrs. de Winter – never given a name in either the novel or the film – is besieged by Rebecca at all times: Rebecca’s monogram is stitched into all her linens; Rebecca’s old friends speak fondly of her beauty and vivaciousness; Rebecca’s room, facing the sea, is kept precisely as it was the night that she died.  In order to create the effect/affect of the second Mrs. de Winter’s inability to escape her predecessor, Hitchcock uses an extraordinarily evocative score by Franz Waxman, an enormous set for the home that threatens to envelop and devour the second Mrs. de Winter, and camera work that “enacts the repression of the feminine – the woman’s relegation to the status of a signifier within the male discourse. … [It] can be described as hysterical – frantically searching for, retracing the path of, the lost object, attempting to articulate what is, precisely, not there.  As such, the camera movements have the status of symptoms” (Doane 1987, 155).  While this is a rather technical means of producing affect, it is no less aesthetically motivated.  A more conventional director would have been likely to remain satisfied with filming Fontaine as she reacted hysterically to her environment.  Hitchcock, in order to produce his total work of art, brings the very camera into the service of involving the spectator in the film – as the second Mrs. de Winter, no less.  Her dreamy nature is replicated in the movements of the camera; her panic and fear, too, as she is shown dwarfed by her surroundings even while feeling trapped by the memory of Rebecca.  He also makes use of various aesthetic effects to instil the proper affect regarding Mrs. Danvers’s unsettling obsession with her former employer.  When the second Mrs. de Winter dares to ask to see Rebecca’s old room,

Franz Waxman’s score becomes Debussy-esque, all open fifths and clarinet arpeggios, punctuated by notes played on the theremin and the shimmer of the harp.  The episode could have come straight from the grotto scene in Pelléas et Mélisande; when Mrs. Danvers flings open the drapes covering the high Gothic window, one thinks of Pelléas’s exclamation of amazement as a ray of moonlight illuminates the grotto: “Oh!voici la claret! … [Mrs. Danvers] is celebrating a rite of memory.  Lost in her ecstasy, she twirls about in a plus que lente necrophiliac waltz. … Only Hitchcock could have indulged in such whim: in terms of narrative economy, the scene is superfluous – it is absolute stasis, apparently gratuitous, akin to a favourite device of the ancient Greek bards, chanting their poems, lyre in hand, eyes rolling skyward (Cogeval 2001, 29).

The narrative could have been served equally as well with a few seconds of Mrs. Danvers telling the second Mrs. de Winter, “This was Rebecca’s room.  Everything is just as she left it.  It looks out on the sea.” Hitchcock, intent on the total work of art, takes several minutes to ensure that the audience feels the same uncanny dread as Fontaine’s character, as both she and we witness Mrs. Danvers’s eroticization of Rebecca’s room.  The music, the billowing sheer curtains, the immense and immaculate room – all purely aesthetic effects – generate meaning in ways that mere expository speech and establishing shots could not.

Nearly twenty years later, Hitchcock made his masterpiece: Vertigo, another film about the inability to escape the past.  Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) is a retired policeman with a terrible fear of heights, and accompanying vertigo if he even climbs a step-ladder.  His old acquaintance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), hires him to trail his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), whom he says has been behaving strangely and talking of killing herself.  Scottie and Madeleine fall in love, and then she falls off a bell tower after his acrophobia prevents him from being able to ascend to the top to stop her from killing herself.  Months later, mourning his loss, he finds Judy (Novak).  She looks remarkably like Madeleine, because she is in fact the same woman, hired by Elster to impersonate Madeleine as part of an elaborate murder plot.  Her love for Scottie was real, and so she accedes to his request to dress and act like Madeleine – again.

As Peter Wollen says, “It parades before the viewer specimen episodes of delusion, fetishism, sado-masochism, mourning and melancholia, guilt complex, phobia, catatonia, scopophilia, fixation on the primal scene, obsession, repetition compulsion, loss of identity, latent homosexuality, unconscious slips and bungled actions, and finally, as Hitchcock gleefully noted, necrophilia” (1997, 16).  It also parades before the viewer scenes – and sounds – of surpassing beauty.  Cogeval notes that Madeleine’s first suicide attempt deliberately draws comparisons to John Everett Millais’s Ophelia: strewing rose petals in the San Francisco Bay before she is pursued by madness into the water (2001, 27).  Indeed, he says that all of Hitchcock’s San Francisco seems to be “racked by generalized Ophelization” (2001, 32): it is a city of regret, mist, longing, dejection, and hopelessness.  It becomes a ghost town, through which Scottie wanders as if lost until he meets Judy.  During two crucial scenes, her apartment is eerily lit with green light, ostensibly from the neon Empire Hotel sign outside; but of course Hitchcock deliberately chose not only for the room to be flooded with coloured light, but specifically green light:

[Donald Spoto] recounted Hitchcock’s first memory of going to the theatre, when he was only five years old: “I remember the green light – green for the appearances of ghosts and villains.” Thus the old conventions of Victorian melodrama are recycled over half a century later, in Hitchcock’s own story of ghosts and villains – Scottie is dazed at the vision of his beloved Madeleine returned from the dead as a flesh-and-blood ghost or, as Boileau-Narcejac described her, a reincarnation (Wollen 1997, 16).

And of course, beyond the visuals, there is Bernard Herrmann’s music.  Drawing heavily on Wagner, specifically the “Tristan chord” (Cogeval 2001, 36), it further underscores Hitchcock’s connection to Wagner’s loftier themes and ideals: “[Wagner’s] music, occasionally, and more often his dramaturgy, are summoned in the films of the Master, for he was another who firmly believed in redemption through love, in the Catholic sense” (Cogeval 2001, 35).  Of course, in Vertigo, there is a squandered redemption and then, we assume, no redemption at all: Scottie wins back his love from the dead, but by the end of the film, she is really dead – no elaborate murder mystery to explain things.  Nevertheless, the film’s meaning (love’s possibility only through and in death – a truly Wagnerian notion) derives its strength from its aesthetic aspects rather than its plot.  The plot alone is, as Hitchcock mischievously said, mere necrophilia.  Vertigo is a gorgeous, engrossing, voluptuous tale of erotic love, with “mists of tenderness enfold[ing] mountains of longing” (Nabokov 1997, 131).  Hitchcock’s devotion to aesthetics has apotheosised this ghost-story-with-a-twist into a film that many consider the twentieth century’s best of any genre or era.

Of course, there are many more instances of Hitchcock’s devotion to aesthetics.  Space does not permit a full examination of all of them, but a few examples are as follows: the repeated nightclub sign that reads “TO-NIGHT GOLDEN CURLS” during the streak of murdered blonde women in The Lodger (1927); the non-diegetic images of dancing Belle Époque figures as the “Merry Widow Waltz” plays throughout Shadow of a Doubt (1943); the very premise of Rear Window (1954), in which an incapacitated apartment dweller solves a murder mystery he spies at the apartment across the way, as if viewing and participating in his own murder-mystery movie; and the flashing red that accompanies the title character’s panic attacks in Marnie (1964).  Throughout his career, Hitchcock relied on what a philosopher of aesthetics might call “non-utilitarian pleasures” (which, in Hitchcock’s works, are always based in desire – whatever Zangwill and Kant might think) to make his films especially memorable – and, indeed, to give them meaning.  His painterly effects, operatic affects, and understanding that the cinematic form is most exciting and engaging when it includes as many arts as possible within the two hours it has to tell a story, all unite throughout his filmography to ensure that the Master joins the ranks of the West’s greatest artists.



Works Cited

Bondil-Poupard, Nathalie. 2001. “Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On: Hitchcock and Dalí, Surrealism and Oneiricism.” In Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences. Edited by Dominique Païni and Guy Cogeval, 155-171. Montreal: Mazzotta.

Budd, Malcolm. 1998. “Aesthetics.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by E. Craig. London: Routledge.

Cogeval, Guy. 2001. “What Brings You to the Museum, Mr. Hitchcock?” In Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences. Edited by Dominique Païni and Guy Cogeval, 21-37. Montreal: Mazzotta.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1991. “From Affect to Action: The Impulse-Image.” In Cinema 1: The Movement Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, 123-140. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

—. 2003. “Painting and Sensation.” In Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Translated by Daniel W. Smith, 25-31. New York: Continuum.

Doane, Mary Anne.1987. “Female Spectatorship and Machines of Projection: Caught and Rebecca.” In The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s, 155-175. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Harbord, Janet. 2002. “Aesthetic Encounters.” In Film Cultures, 117-137. London: SAGE.

Harper, Douglas. “Aesthetic.” Online Etymology Dictionary. 2012.

Jacobs, Stephen. 2007. “Space Fright.” In The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock, 16-40. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.

Nabokov, Vladimir. 1997. Lolita. New York: Vintage International.

Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate. New York: Penguin.

Shafto, Sally. 2001. “Hitchcock’s Objects, or the World Made Solid.” In Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences. Edited by Dominique Païni and Guy Cogeval, 137-145. Montreal: Mazzotta.

Wollen, Peter. 1997. “Compusion.” Sight and Sound 7, no.4: 14-19.

Zangwill, Nick, “Aesthetic Judgment.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta.



Lodger, The. DVD. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. [United States]: MGM, 2009.

Marnie. DVD. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. [United States]: Universal Studios, 2005.

Vertigo. DVD. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. [United States]: Universal Studios, 2008.

Rear Window. DVD. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. [United States]:Universal Studios, 2012.

Rebecca. DVD. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. [United States]: Criterion, 2001.

Shadow of a Doubt. DVD. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. [United States]: Universal Studios, 2005.


2 comments on “Hitchcock and Aesthetics

  1. Pingback: Nevermore, Ever More: How Poe Lives in Hitchcock « more stars than in the heavens

  2. Pingback: 2015 Movie Challenge: Rebecca | more stars than in the heavens

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